While it is well established that Leonardo da Vinci’s father was Florentine lawyer Ser Piero da Vinci, the identity of the famous painter’s mother has long been surrounded in mystery. Beyond the name “Caterina”, little was known about the woman. Recent scholarship has even suggested the she may have been an Arab slave.
A new book by art historian Martin Kemp and economist and art researcher Giuseppe Pallanti, however, claims a different origin, citing archival records – including property tax records – in Florence and in Vinci that point to a 15-year-old peasant named Caterina di Meo Lippi. According to Mona Lisa: The People and the Painting, Di Meo Lippi was 15 when she became pregnant with Leonardo, the conception lining up with a break Ser Piero da Vinci took in 1451.
“Nice summer’s evening probably in the fields — and that was it,” Kemp told The Times in London, describing Caterina – who lived with her grandmother and then an aunt and uncles as “a peasant fallen on bad times, and you cannot be much lower in the social pile than that.”
“To be a 16-year-old with an illegitimate son and no house was about as bad as it gets,” he said.
San Piero was due to marry someone else while Di Meo Lippi was married to a local farmer and the infant Leonardo, who was born on April 14, 1452, went to live with his grandfather Antonio. “Ser Piero was making a career in Florence so he didn’t want a infant baby dragging around. And the grandfather lived in very decent circumstances. They were families of landowners and notaries,” he said. “The grandfather appears to have behaved beautifully. When Leonardo moves to Florence he was always known as Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci.”
The book also reveals evidence to suggest that Leonardo’s mother came to stay with him in the year she died. “There is a note in Leonardo’s notebooks, in 1494 in Milan, saying ‘Caterina came to stay’,” Kemp said. “Elsewhere there is a note of Leonardo paying her funeral expenses. In the same year Milan funeral records relate the death of a Caterina from Florence. You put those three things together, and she died within a year of arriving at Leonardo’s.”
“She travelled to Milan to spend time with her son,” he said, “which is quite a romantic end to what is otherwise a melancholy story.”